Phoebe Robinson’s fringe debut – also her UK stand-up debut – takes this year’s festival by storm with her relaxed and widely relatable show wonderfully titled Sorry, Harriet Tubman. Known for her hit podcast 2 Dope Queens and New York Times best-seller You Can’t Touch My Hair & Other Things I Still Have To Explain, her enfolding presence is immediately comforting and likeable as she skilfully navigates a white-majority audience with a black-majority joke repertoire that is successful because it never makes anyone second think their laughter. For one, Robinson draws a side-splitting parallel between her white boyfriend tricking her into moving in together and colonisation. No subject is too taboo: sex, blackness, and interracial dating are weaved through with ease and non-stop laughs. But then again, her boyfriend-related gags don’t really delve into navigating racial difference in an interracial arrangement, but differing opinions on how much to powder balls and whether those powdered balls should be allowed on furniture.
Funnily enough, what is uncomfortable are those moments when Phoebe tries to pander to her British audience by making vague, and unfortunately awkward, references to British culture. Her attempted English accent quickly dampens an otherwise riotous audience. Because, after all, these British audiences are hungry for her Americanisms, especially African Americanisms.
As is with most comedy shows, that title seems to bear little relevance to her subject matter. But amidst light-hearted laughs about lethargy, white guy quirks, and Kingsman’s entirely ridiculous ending, Robinson does manage to touch on what is wrong with our collective obsession with black excellence and kweenhood culture. Her apologia to Harriet Tubman for failing to live up to her legacy; for being a less-than-revolutionary black girl (Phoebe and her friends ditch a particularly hot Washington protest to go get brunch) acts as a reminder regarding just how much society expects from black people to deem them acceptable. We celebrate black excellence and not black mediocrity. We celebrate black larger-than-life queens but never black girls. And black civil rights was, after all, about giving black people rights to do what they want, even when that is doing nothing at all. Though Robinson never makes such statements word for word, they are present – lingering – in her self-flagellation and desperate need to impress her unlikely business partner Michelle Obama.